Advice for students interested in STEM/physics?

What I mean to ask is, what is the pathway to success for students who are interested in pursuing STEM degrees, and how to build a career/name for yourself early on during college? I am currently a freshman at a community college, and I’ve had several different interests aka degrees I’ve wanted to pursue, but am leaning towards studying physics. However, I have never taken a calculus class, or even precalculus, because I skipped out on those in high school. I’m taking them soon, but I still feel at a disadvantage because I’m not quite sure of what to expect from physics or what kind of expectations there are for any careers related to it. I also feel that I don’t know a ton about physics despite having an interest in it (It’s been a couple of years since I took a physics class, but I was deeply engaged in it). Is it wrong to think this way? Is it wrong to feel that you don’t know much about something you are interested in? Is interest in the subject more important, or firsthand knowledge before coming in? Do I need to know a whole lot about physics to start learning about it? I want to know what you high level physics majors think about this. And what kinds of things can I do to “advance” my career during college, and do I need to know a whole lot when working as an intern for something related to STEM?

Follow your interests! Nobody knows a lot about physics when they start. There are 4 main strands of physics, which you will taste-test in intro- see which appeals to you most. Also check out Materials Science, which is an engineering-based field at the intersection of physics, engineering, chemistry, math, bio, etc.

Physics gets v v mathy really quickly, though, so see how the calc goes. Pro tip: get help very early on if you have any trouble at all- calc is a different mindset from other math you’ve done; once you ‘get’ how it works it is a lot easier, but a lot of students are thrown by it at the beginning.

Most introductory physics course sequences will assume no hard-set prior knowledge in physics, aside from maybe whatever physical intuition you have developed through your life to that point. All in all, don’t worry too much about not being “up to snuff” or what have you. As the above poster mentioned, physics can become quite math intensive quite quickly, so as far as preparation goes, focus on all of the maths you will be taking before you take your first STEM physics course. I technically hadn’t taken a formal physics class before my intro calculus-based physics sequence a few years back, and I managed very well throughout.

In terms of what you can do to better yourself throughout your college career, I have a few tips. First, focus in your core physics classes; more than simply learning how to solve the problems that are on the test, you need to begin to develop a structured intuition and understanding of physics concepts as well as begin to develop a set of general problem-solving strategies. In addition, spend a good deal of time thinking about what you learn in your lecture or lab, and try to apply what you learn to some problems of self-interest. Finally as far as your physics classes go, communicate with your professors. You will want connections with physics department faculty in order to address any topical or career questions or concerns you may develop, and it never hurts to have a few close relationships with these professors when it comes time to transfer, to ensure you have solid guidance as to where you will be wanting to apply as well as for excellent letters of recommendation.

Outside of physics classes themselves, you want to focus on a few other disciplines; in particular, you will want to strengthen your mathematical skills. Take as many maths as your CC offers, and like your physics classes, you will want to go beyond learning procedural calculation techniques and instead develop an intuition for what is happening. I find it helps to learn math from both the physicist’s and mathematician’s perspectives to allow for multiple ways to develop as you continue your studies. There is a general list of what maths you can expect to take during your undergrad, and I can elaborate on them if you would like. Aside from math courses, you will want to eventually develop at least a moderate familiarity with programming and general computer science. Take some classes on the matter if you have time, or develop skill with using one of the many mathematical programming systems such as Mathematica of MATLAB.

Finally, when you transfer to a four-year institution, you want to try to get involved in research. This serves a few purposes; to find out if you enjoy that part of physics, as well as to gain experience that will greatly help when it comes time for grad school applications, if you so choose to go that route. Most large universities with a solid physics department will have some undergraduate research opportunities, but you’ll have to do the legwork and find these opportunities yourself most of the time.

Sorry for the rambling, I’m always eager to assist new physics students to help them get into the groove as soon as possible. Let me know if you want any more details about any of the above, or if you are interested in the sort of topics and courses you’ll be learning/taking. Cheers, and best of luck!

You’ve already gotten great advice!

As for the intern piece…companies know that interns are still students and still learning, and they don’t expect them to know everything. Heck, we even know that about new college hires. So you will only be expected to know what you should, based on the classes that you’ve taken. Interns are there TO learn, and internship programs are designed not just to get work out of you but also to teach you practical skills.

Don’t be scared! If you love physics, throw yourself into it and work hard :slight_smile: